Lizzie Lee excited about once in a lifetime Olympics opportunity
‘Athletics is not about dopers. It’s about being the best you can be’
At some stage next Monday morning Lizzie Lee will get a phone call from Athletics Ireland telling her she’s going to the Rio Olympics. She’ll thank them kindly, quietly hang up the phone, then get back to work at her job with Apple in Cork.
Inside, however, she’s been trying to contain her wild excitement for the last eight months – or 239 days, to be exact. “Oh, I’ve been counting down the sleeps for weeks now,” she tells me, knowing, inside, that for those last eight months her marathon time has remained the fastest Irish women’s qualifier for Rio, and that her selection is now a formality.
“So yeah I’d certainly hope at this point that’s all enough, I’ve have ticked all the boxes, and it’s there, yeah, potentially, to be an Olympian. And that’s amazing.”
Indeed, next Monday’s selection is exciting on several counts – not least the fact it will come the day after her 36th birthday. The age thing, she knows, is just a number, although for Lee, the road to Rio only began late in her running career, partly by chance, and she’s completed it while being a mother to 22-month-old daughter Lucy and a full-time employee at Apple.
Plus, only eight Irish women have previously qualified for the Olympic marathon, since the event was added in Los Angeles in 1984, and three of those were in London 2012:.
There’ll be three Irish women again in Rio and Lee has been in pole position for selection since running 2:32:51 in the Berlin Marathon last September – knocking over five minutes off her previous best and well inside the 2:45:00 qualifying standard. It was and still is the fifth fastest Irish women’s marathon of all time.
“If I can be as good as I can be, in a clean and honest way, that’s all that matters to me. You could exhaust yourself just thinking about everything else. You read all these articles about Russia and eventually you just have to stop and go training. What’s the point? I can only control what I can control, do the best I can do.
“You’d hope that things are getting better, that they’re going in the right direction, but for me it’s about the training, and if I let that get into my head, I’m in trouble. And you do get a bit fed up with it. Athletics is not about the dopers. It’s about being the best you can be, in clean, honest competition. And I just love this sport. I love running. And look at the Phil Healy video recently, how many people got excited by that?
“And so much about running, training well, is being happy, staying motivated, so you just can let all that get into your head. I’m the fifth fastest Irish marathon woman ever. That’s what motivates me. And now I’ve the chance to go to the Olympics to run the fastest time of my life. I know that might sound a little cheesy but that’s actually the way it is.”
It’s not hard to understand why Lee still appreciates the Olympics in this way: representing Ireland was never actually a lifetime ambition but now that she’s realised it and seen the impact it’s had, not just on her life but the lives of those around her, there is so much to be appreciative about.
She’d never have made it this far without the backing of her husband, Paul Kelleher, a network of support from both sides of the family, and an equally appreciative mentor in Donie Walsh, the famed coach at Leevale AC in Cork – himself an Irish Olympic marathon representative, in Munich in 1972.
Still, she stuck with the triathlon for another few years, including while working in Australia, where she met up with fellow Cork athlete Bryan Keane (who with cosmic coincidence has also now qualified for Rio in the triathlon). It was Keane who suggested she join Leevale on her return to Ireland in 2009. Not long after that, Walsh convinced her to put aside the bike and the pool (although she’s still a mighty swimmer), and soon Lee was leading the way in the Cork cross country scene. The first international breakthrough came in 2012, when she was part of the Irish women’s team that won gold at the Europeans in Budapest. She’d also tried to qualify for the London Olympic marathon, although fell short with her 2:46:33 debut in Rotterdam.
Soon Rio was on the horizon, although around then Lee had another decision to make: the European Championship marathon in Zurich in 2014 was a definite possibility, but there was something else to consider. “By then I was 33, really wanted to have a baby, so the choice was wait to see about Zurich, and forget about Rio. But we were just married, then I got pregnant, and so the baby came first. Hopefully it’s all worked out.”
It’s no secret that many women have come back from childbirth to produce faster times – and Lee presents further evidence of that. There is still some debate as to how pregnancy may help women distance runners in the long run; red blood cell count does increase, improving endurance and oxygen capacity, although in recounting her 2:32:51 in Berlin, Lee also points to a more psychological advantage.
“The last few miles of Berlin were the hardest thing I’ve even done,” she says, “and yeah, harder than childbirth. They think there is an increase in cardiac output, after childbirth, and I certainly feel stronger. I was carrying an extra two stone for much of the pregnancy and trained through it too, up to 13 weeks before.
“So it’s a bit like altitude training for about six months. You’ve lost some blood, and your heart is beating faster, and in the end all that increases the cardiac output. Then there’s the childbirth itself. They say if you can deal with that, you can deal with any pain in the world. And you can. The difference with the marathon as well is that when it got really hard, I knew I only had two miles to go. With childbirth, I’d no idea how long it was going to go on.”
Still, even with her 2:32:51 in the bag, Lee always knew she’d have to wait until May 23rd before her Rio selection was confirmed – that being the strangely extended deadline set by Athletics Ireland. A month later, Fionnuala McCormack ran 2:33:15 in Chicago; others tried too but didn’t come close, and it now looks like Breege Connolly, who ran 2:37:24 in London in March 2015, will take the third qualifying spot, along with Lee and McCormack.
Even with that pending selection Lee was content to continue working, training and mothering as usual: that work-life-training balance had always suited her, and continued to do so in December, when once again she was part of the Irish women’s cross country team that won bronze medals at the European Championships in Hyères in the south of France (where Lee finished in 13th).
At no point was she even tempted to go into full-time training: “There are arguments for and against that. We met up with the Olympic council before Christmas, and they warned us of the anti-climax after the Olympics. That it’s important to have something there. Some runners go full-time, then might get sick or injured, and can get very down. Or maybe lack some perspective. I like being busy. Of course I’d love an extra nap on a Wednesday afternoon, but my days fly by.
“And when I was on maternity leave I’d be waiting around most of the day to train and I hated it. The day just dragged on. Now when I finish work I drive the mile and a half from Apple down to the Mardyke and before I’ve thought about it I’m doing the session. And there’s a lot to be said for that. Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m hyper-energetic anyway, need to be doing things. It’s also down to very supportive parents, in-laws and a very supportive husband who is just the rock. People ask me who does the cooking and I keep saying it’s all Paul. I don’t do any cooking. So he does, mostly out necessity, or everyone would starve.”
“The most important thing now is that I’m completely fit, healthy, all in one piece, and injury free, and feeling good. And in shape to run the fastest marathon of my life. And I’ve enjoyed every bit of the training. It’s very easy to motivate yourself to go running in the lashing rain when you have the Olympic qualifying time. And as the weeks have passed and I’m still the fastest qualifier that’s helped too.
“And Donie has been grinning at the end of recent sessions, which doesn’t happen very often. He knows I’m in great shape. And we have a super group, down in Leevale, doing all the hard sessions, always with the guys. I’ve always one of the guys a few metres ahead of me to chase, and that’s been great. I do most of the easy runs on my own, but all the hard sessions, the long runs, I have the guys there to push me. And there’s always a bit of banter, bit of crack.”
There is, however, one moment of sacrifice about all this that Lee’s not looking forward to: “I will have to leave Lucy at home, for three weeks, during Rio. That’s my biggest concern, leaving my baby girl behind. But it’s once in a lifetime, for me. And I get to come home and be an Irish Olympian for the rest of my life.”